Melodies of My Youth

When I was a child, my family had an old-fashioned phonograph that had been passed down from my grandfather. It required hand-winding and used a bamboo needle, and it came with special silver tweezers for cutting the bamboo needles.

On the side of the phonograph was a logo with a large dog, sitting in front of a speaker. We also had a number of German 78 rpm records stored inside an exquisitely embossed volume.

I didn't know much about the world's renowned composers in my early years. But their music was neither obscure nor obtuse, and it was definitely not deliberately mystifying. As a teenager, I would listen once and immediately understand. I was captivated by music.

Emotions washed over me.

Works of a true master musician should not be unfathomable or incomprehensible. Rather, he or she should be influenced by fears that listeners might not understand. Music is neither seen nor touched, but it offers narrative, and it is romantic. Its descriptions are no less vivid than those made by text and pictures. That's why I found the records played on our phonograph so incredible.

In September 1973, the conductor Eugene Ormandy accompanied the Philadelphia Orchestra on a trip to China. The concert was performed as if in a room with curtains drawn: Few knew about the performance, and even fewer came to hear it. Yet today, this concert is known as an ice-breaker.

In fact, though, the first western orchestra to perform in China since 1949 (when the People's Republic of China was established) was the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which came to China earlier in 1973. I not only witnessed this performance of Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 on a black-and-white television in a factory's ping-pong room, but I also got tickets to a rehearsal before the performance.

I got up early to travel to the Tianqiao Theater in southern Beijing. It was a dark day with sandstorms, but the sight of a few yellow bundles of winter jasmine growing by the side of a road jumped out at me as I passed.

The London Philharmonic musicians stepped off a bus in single file. These were colorful, radiant British musicians who displayed a refined, unhurried manner. They wore casual but elegant clothes.

We Chinese at that time were being pummeled by the Cultural Revolution. So to us, these British musicians were like bright, healthy fruit set in a field of lean potatoes. It seemed they had walked into our world from another realm. In performing, they came so close to us, yet remained so far away.

Near the end of the rehearsal, the London Philharmonic sight-read the Chinese revolutionary song “Happy Woman Warrior” from The Red Detachment of Women, shortly after being handed the music.

The first time through, the tempo was gentle, like an old monk chanting scripture. The second time, they played at the original tempo. With the lightest movement of conductor John Pritchard's hands, the entire orchestra as well as this composition, which had filled our ears thousands of times, were suddenly bright, fresh and vivid.

The arpeggios, moving rapidly through each woodwind section, as if carried by wings, joined in flawlessly. The process we usually hear is only a flute sharp—a bright but short flash of flute. But the female flautist for the London Philharmonic slightly extended the final note. Thus, the music lingered after the performance ended, creating a mood that was suddenly sublime.

In late spring of that year, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra also came to Beijing.

Television stations broadcast the concert live. Conductor Claudio Abbado was in his prime.

He was disheveled, with long hair covering ears. He frequently twisted his head around, presenting hawk-like eyes that flashed radiantly.

Abbado gazed at Chinese pianist Yin Chengzong’s lonely, intoxicated face. Later, the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Ormandy, tried China's Yellow River piano concerto. It is said that when the performance came to an end, the American music critic Harold C. Schonberg told Yin that this piece of music was simply garbage.

I don't understand what Schonberg meant. Perhaps a Chinese person, though, can hear the suffering of a nation in this work, to which his western ears were unaccustomed. Maybe he should have applied to everything, even the “off-key piccolo playing” of a country buffalo boy, his personal musical theory.

Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic arrived at the end of the 1970s. He left an indelible impression on me, a student at a conservatory of music, not because of his artistic conducting but because he spoiled the experience.

Karajan’s final performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was a joint production with China’s Central Philharmonic Orchestra. When the morning rehearsal started, Karajan walked out with an ashen face and dragging a lame leg, his shoulders trembling. Someone immediately stepped up from behind and removed a cloak from his shoulders. He had been unhappy for several days.

Karajan had demanded that each member of the orchestra be given his or her own room at a hotel. He thus demanded that all other guests be removed from the hotel. The Chinese refused his demand, and he vowed never to return to China. Before the rehearsal, Li Delun, then-conductor of the Central Philharmonic, had told his orchestra to exercise extreme caution.

While rehearsing Beethoven’s seventh, the orchestra suddenly stopped. Karajan was saying something. The Central Philharmonic musicians squeezed together toward the middle of the orchestral stage and looked at each other. It turns out that the conductor thought the violin players were too weak, even inaccurate.

In front of everyone, Karajan made the violinists play an A-major scale. I saw the violinists, like prisoners being paraded in a cage, begin that most basic exercise, the A-major scale. After the great force delivered in the previous music, their solo scales sounded so weak and helpless.

In reality, even a layman should know that playing scales several times live and on-the-spot cannot increase a musician's volume or the accuracy of pitch. Karajan’s intent was to humiliate, even though humiliating does not accomplish music's real intention. Not to mention, he was humiliating peers from his host country. He was not only rude, but impudent.

By that time, I had learned not to hold foreign artists up as immortals. Karajan’s musical treatment, in Beethoven’s seventh symphony, for instance, was neither the worst nor best I had heard.

A symphony’s second movement is the most difficult to make outstanding. Beethoven is an exception. The second movements of all his symphonies are extraordinarily brilliant. And in his fifth, sixth and seventh symphonies, these are the most brilliant movements. Symphony No. 7’s second movement weeps inwardly, progressively painful and sorrowful. In Karajan’s interpretation, the pain and sorrow are somewhat contrived, as if the sole and upper parts of a shoe had separated and the friction caused the movement to drag.

When I look at Karajan’s photo on the cover of a CD, with his eyes closed, fists clenched, and with a meditative look, I often think about how this man spent a lifetime conducting the masterpieces of musical history. These works relate to the human soul. They are masterpieces of nobility and dignity, hardship and bitterness. But does he really understand them?

One early autumn morning, I was reading a book while seated on a bamboo bench in the family garden. Autumn sun filtered through the arbor, sprinkling shadows all around. My sister was in the house playing a borrowed tape.

Suddenly came the most beautiful music I had ever heard. I straightened, inclined my ear, and listened. The music was a Wu Zuqiang strings arrangement of Two Springs Reflecting the Moon, which had never been broadcast before. The lamenting but compassionate melody composed by the “Blind” Abing, the soft tone of the strings, like shading on an ink painting, could soften a heart of stone and turn anyone into a kindhearted romantic.

I’ve listened to it again and again during my lifetime, and I have not tired of it. This is the subtlety that a good book, a good painting, or good music provides. You can enjoy it over and again for a lifetime.

In the first semester of ethnic music class at the conservatory, I heard a recording of an Abing performance of Two Springs Reflecting the Moon. I was left breathless. Among the distant rustling of the steel tape, a bow sounded a heart-rending note, grieving and sorrowful, yet sweet and agreeable.

The song sounds as if it were created on a whim, but in reality Abing had a strong competence for overall composition and a clear sense of hierarchy. It’s like peeling winter bamboo shoots, constantly stripped from the head, but with an indistinct and innate strength that increases with each layer, pushing toward extreme heights.

Abing’s string music is not very exact, but in any event it has the true flavor of a folk artist. Thus, I have often regretted today's young erhu players, who are too well-fed, possess tempers that are too strong, and are too precise in their technique. If they could spend a night in the rain with nothing to eat, I think they would be much improved.

When Abing pulls his bow, sometimes he follows the rhythm one beat after another, much like the bold transitions in rhythm seen in late Qing Dynasty master Ren Bonian’s scroll paintings, which are so full of the feelings of music. This may be a hand disease of his street performance, or the effect of giving an accompaniment. The sound in this blind artist’s heart was certainly much richer than what he played on that two-stringed instrument.

Today, it seems everything China does is part of its pursuit to “go international.” This probably cannot be avoided for music. In reality, Abing's music long ago went international. He never managed himself, and never pandered to his audience. He stepped onto a road that could not be more natural and innocent by inquiring into the human mind.

Music, that plaything, truly does not differentiate between past and present, nor foreign and domestic soil, much less what may be considered advanced or outmoded. The only thing that matters is whether or not it's genuine.

Chang Gang is a musician.

This article was originally published in the October 17, 2011 edition of Caixin Magazine.